Salt and Light
13“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matt 5
Where is the place of Christianity today? For that matter where should it be in societies of this 21st century? This is an important question both because the answer will form certain basic expectations for the Church and because it will need to address certain assumptions which a free society will make concerning religion in general.
It is taken for granted these days that the ‘great days’ of Christendom are behind us. These were, for want of another definition, days when the Church held not only significant power within the state but was also a significant political power in virtually every community within that state. Church mattered and its opinion mattered and this position conferred status to its credentialed servants. In counted to be a priest or minister. It still does in certain parts of the world but the days when this was common everywhere in the West are gone.
The rights and wrongs of this have been debated ad infinitum elsewhere and I don’t want to repeat that save to say that many Christians believe this to be a good thing because power did not suit the Gospel. The question I want to raise is this – what should we expect from the state in terms of our place in society now – what is a biblical expectation?
My contention is this; any kind of hope or ambition for a return to the political power the Church once had, while possible, is both highly unlikely and unbiblical. Now this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to raise our point of view and to have it heard as a good citizen of the state. We have a duty, I believe, to both live and preach morally in whatever society we live for to do so is the first duty of every Christian. And who knows, this may win the day politically and so be reflected in the laws and ethics of the society within which we live.
So far, perhaps, much of what I’ve said will not be particularly surprising to many. However, there is an aspect of this which I suspect we’ve gotten wrong over many years, certainly in my life time, and which we need to improve on. This concerns the nature of the ‘morality’ I am speaking about.
The word ‘moral’ is a deeply Christian word and was first used as a noun to translate the Latin Moralia, the title of St. Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. It was subsequently applied to the works of various classical writers. As such, it meant, in this context, ‘scriptural behaviour’ or behaviour based on the scripture (of Job) and then, more generally, “proper behaviour of a person in society,” literally “pertaining to manners,” and then to translate the Greek ethikos – ἠθικός (see ethics) from Latin mos (genitive moris). So, to act and to preach ‘morally,’ as I understand it, is to act in accordance with scripture and, in this case scripture has some important things to say to us about the ‘place’ of the Church.
My point is a simple one. The operative nouns in the passage above from Matthew 5 are salt and light (specifically a light under a bushel). In and of themselves they have one thing in common – they constitute only a tiny percentage of the whole – they are small compared to the thing they are influencing. Salt constitutes the very smallest part of a meal. The light that may be placed under a bushel will be, perhaps, one small flame – the tiniest part of the world which it is illuminating. In short, it is likely that the Church’s proper place or, at least, the place which it will normally hold, is small, miniscule compared to the peoples, states and regions which it can and will influence.
It’s not that it is wrong to command a greater place. I don’t think this can be adduced from scripture. It’s just that it’s uncommon and unlikely given the state of humankind. Furthermore, even when it did command such a place, such as during the Middle Ages in Europe, that power led to greater corruption of the Church and the Gospel it preached than perhaps at any other time. It also resulted in significant dissatisfaction with the Church and to the rise of Reformers such as Luther and Calvin and later Wesley and Whitfield who effectively lead great splits away from the powerful parts of the Church.
But need this be the case. Could we not do with more influence from the Gospel on the state? Is it not a good thing to have the ultimate moral book at the centre of political life? Some might point to the early theocracy of Israel in the Bible and say that this was and is, in fact, God’s plan but an honest evaluation of that period and even of David’s reign would surely suggest that this was little better than the reign of a beneficent but pagan King and, certainly, at times much worse. Micah 3 portrays perhaps the end point of this rule in a manner that can hardly be any worse than the worst pagan states…
9Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.” (Micah 3)
And this, indeed, was not unlike the Church prior to the Reformation. The sad thing is that power corrupts even the most godly of people and institutions and we should not think that the Church is any different. It is still a very human institution.
But there is an even more important reason why the Church is at its best when it is not counted amongst the powerful and it is this. The Church’s true influence is always as a witness to the One who holds all power in His hands and yet remains uncorrupted. The act of being a witness to power is not the same as having power and, in fact, is more effective when done by the powerless. We are, in many ways, a people of power but this power is not our own – it is another’s. The whole of Christian mission is predicated on this strategy – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” says Christ.
Of course, power is promised here but it is power to witness, power to proclaim, power to heal, power to love. Again, at times, we may receive power and we may be asked to use it responsibly but this is not the primary act of the Church. The primary act is to witness to Christ in and through our weakness.